New lawsuit challenges Idaho’s Blaine Amendment

A new lawsuit is challenging Idaho’s long-standing constitutional provision that bars religious institutions — including private schools — from receiving taxpayer resources. 

Last week, Truth Family Bible Church of Middleton filed a federal lawsuit claiming Idaho’s Blaine Amendment infringes on religious and free speech rights protected under the U.S. Constitution. The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for Idaho, could have weighty implications in Idaho’s ongoing debate over school choice, a catchall term that describes directing taxpayer funds to private education through vouchers, savings accounts or tax credits.  

The Blaine Amendment is among dozens of so-called “no-aid provisions” in state constitutions across the nation, which are designed to deter public money, land and property from benefitting religious organizations. Idaho’s Blaine Amendment has been a barrier to — or, depending on who you ask, a shield from — passing controversial school choice policies that have proliferated in other Republican-led states. Most private schools in Idaho are religious, and therefore are barred under the Blaine Amendment from receiving public resources. 

Truth Family Bible Church’s lawsuit asks a federal court to weigh whether the provision unconstitutionally discriminates against religion — both in the church’s specific case, which stems from a canceled lease with a public charter school, and more broadly. Pacific Justice Institute, a California-based nonprofit law group that specializes in hot-button religious freedom cases, filed the complaint on behalf of the church.

Danny Steinmeyer, pastor of Truth Family Bible Church in Middleton

“There’s going to be other people who very well could be affected by this,” Truth Family Pastor Danny Steinmeyer told Idaho Education News. “So we felt that this was appropriate to bring forward and to test this constitutionality.”

Truth Family Bible Church is a Baptist congregation that has met in Middleton for roughly five years, Steinmeyer said. In 2022, the church signed a lease with Sage International, a network of public charter schools in the Treasure Valley, to use its Middleton campus gymnasium for Sunday religious services. “We were looking for a building that had air conditioning,” Steinmeyer said. 

The church “had nothing but a positive relationship with the school,” the pastor said, but complications arose when Sage applied for a state bond to expand its facilities. According to the church’s complaint, the Idaho Housing and Finance Association, the state’s bonding authority, declared that the lease agreement violated the Blaine Amendment and Sage had to terminate it in order to qualify for a bond. 

“It is because we are a church,” Steinmeyer said, “that is why we were being kicked out of this facility.”

A Sage International spokesperson declined to comment for this story, and a spokesperson for IHFA didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Steinmeyer said that he hadn’t heard of the Blaine Amendment before the trouble with the lease, which was terminated in February, but he later learned why it’s a hot topic. 

In recent years, some Idaho Republican lawmakers have unsuccessfully pushed colleagues to adopt various programs to subsidize private school tuition, part of a nationwide trend to expand taxpayer-funded school options beyond traditional public schools. 

Public school advocates have vigorously opposed private school vouchers and other mechanisms — like tax credits, the most recent proposal that failed in Idaho — for their potential to siphon funds from public schools. The cost of vouchers in Arizona, for instance, has ballooned as the state expanded eligibility, contributing to a budget deficit this year. 

Opponents would likely challenge any school choice program that passed the Legislature, citing the Blaine Amendment. 

During this year’s legislative session, Rep. Elaine Price, R-Coeur d’Alene, and Sen. Brian Lenney, R-Nampa, both school choice proponents, proposed a constitutional amendment to repeal the Blaine provision. It didn’t advance in the House and would have faced a high bar — constitutional amendments require two-thirds supermajority support from the House and Senate, along with voter approval. 

Lawsuits like Truth Family Bible Church’s, however, have successfully weakened no-aid provisions in other states. In 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Montana’s decision to exclude religious schools from a program accessible to secular private schools was discriminatory. In 2022, the court similarly ruled that a Maine tuition program must include religious schools if it also benefits secular private schools.

Some school choice proponents have falsely claimed that these court decisions rendered Idaho’s Blaine Amendment “null and void.” But the Montana and Maine rulings addressed the application of state-specific no-aid provisions within particular programs. The rulings did not declare that no-aid provisions broadly are unconstitutional.

In other words, it will take a lawsuit to spur a review of Idaho’s Blaine Amendment. Truth Family’s complaint argues that Blaine “discriminates against religion on its face” by conditioning a public benefit “on the foregoing of religious convictions.” 

Jim Jones, former Idaho Supreme Court justice and past attorney general

Jim Jones, a former Idaho Supreme Court justice and past attorney general, said it’s unlikely the U.S. Supreme Court would broadly declare Idaho’s Blaine Amendment unconstitutional. Justices had that opportunity in the two previous cases but didn’t take it, said Jones, a vocal opponent of private school vouchers.

But it’s “debatable” whether the court would agree with the church’s claim that Blaine was unconstitutionally applied in the gymnasium lease scenario, he said. “I would think that they’ve got a tough road” ahead.

In the meantime, Truth Family Bible Church has found a new meeting location: another public school in Middleton. “Churches meet in schools all over the state of Idaho,” Steinmeyer said. “It seems very ironic to us that they would argue that we’re getting some sort of benefit, when we went to the next school that had air conditioning.”

Further reading: No, the Blaine Amendment isn’t ‘null and void.’ Here’s why

Ryan Suppe

Ryan Suppe

Senior reporter Ryan Suppe covers education policy, focusing on K-12 schools. He previously reported on state politics, local government and business for newspapers in the Treasure Valley and Eastern Idaho. A Nevada native, Ryan enjoys golf, skiing and movies. Follow him on Twitter: @ryansuppe. Contact him at [email protected]

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